The Philadelphia Union are a team carried by their midfield. At centre-back, 24-year-olds Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez were college players not too long ago. Up front, CJ Sapong’s record of seven goals in 31 regular-season games does not mark him out as one of MLS’ top strikers.
In the middle of the park, though, are two of the Union’s top-three earners in Alejandro Bedoya and Tranquillo Barnetta (the other, Maurice Edu, has not played this season). While they make the side tick, ex-Toronto FC man Warren Creavalle is the worker bee in front of the back four. On the left wing, Chris Pontius had 12 goals and six assists in 33 games this season.
It’s an effective group, and one that was able to prevent TFC from moving the ball forward fluently for much of their Eastern Conference knockout game at BMO Field on Wednesday night. The Union were quicker to settle despite being away from home and may have taken an early lead had one Pontius shot inside the box not been blocked.
Michael Bradley was watched particularly closely and subsequently struggled to dictate the tempo of the game. Jonathan Osorio looked nervy and loose in possession in the opening stages and, on a couple of occasions, Armando Cooper either didn’t spot an overlapping run of Steven Beitashour’s or was too slow to feed the right-back.
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, and yet Toronto were leading 1-0 by half-time and had effectively sealed their progression with a second goal less than three minutes after the break. They did so less by establishing pretty passing patterns and more by taking advantage of the increased tempo of playoff soccer.
Toronto’s first goal came when Justin Morrow hooked a ball that was half pass, half clearance forward for Sebastian Giovinco. He laid it off for Jozy Altidore, whose second touch was heavy, but Tribbett and Marquez were isolated against the two strikers and the former, trying to clear under pressure, lofted a wild clearance into the air.
Altidore did not waste the second opportunity and, with the help of a bit of luck and some overzealous goalkeeping, was able to pick out Giovinco to finish into an open goal. There was nothing pretty about the two key moments in the build-up; Morrow and Altidore simply attempted to send the ball in the direction of Giovinco as early as possible from awkward positions.
Giovinco’s finish was as expertly taken as we have come to expect and highlighted a performance in which his class shone through in an otherwise scrappy affair. Toronto would extend their lead first at a corner kick, with Nick Hagglund’s near-post runs and bravery a repeated threat, and then again when Altidore shook off one man in his own half before ploughing through Tribbett in the box.
Philadelphia had nearly 60% of the possession and were up for the fight in the middle third of the field, but simply could not match Toronto for pace, power or quality up front.
Toronto’s ability to win this kind of battle is a promising sign ahead of their matchup against New York City FC, who, like Philadelphia, have no shortage of talent in midfield. You can expect, with Andrea Pirlo dictating proceedings, that the visitors to BMO Field on Sunday night will have their fair share of the ball.
To counter that, Toronto must once again create the kind of high-tempo environment in which their younger group may have the edge over the likes of Pirlo and Frank Lampard.
“If the game looks anything like it did in our last game, when it became really high energy, things were closed down fast, it became a real battle, I think it’ll be an interesting matchup,” Greg Vanney said.
“I think it becomes a little more challenging for them maybe to cover those spaces at the same rate and have to deal with second balls, loose balls, all those kinds of things. I think it becomes an interesting challenge for them.”
If those situations do arise and the Reds are able to feed Giovinco and Altidore early in order to isolate them against a porous New York defence, you would back them to do some damage.
On the other hand, Toronto must ensure they avoid the kind of errors that were Philadephia’s downfall. The difference this time, of course, is that the man waiting for their mistakes will be David Villa rather than Sapong.
“Both teams are very good teams, both teams have a lot of guys who can really make you pay if you make mistakes,” Vanney added.
“I think that’s the allure of this game, is that you’ve got guys who can really make big plays and you’ve got to be really stingy defensively because whether it’s Seba or Jozy or my guys, or Lampard or Villa or their guys, with one chance you can put this tie away. So we’ve got to be very stingy defensively first and foremost.”
There’s a lot of love for Toronto FC in Sports Illustrated’s playoff predictions.
John Molinaro of Sportsnet has some interesting comments from Greg Vanney and Nick Hagglund on Toronto’s tactical flexibility.
The Red Bulletin is Waking the Red’s morning update on Toronto FC, wider MLS talking points and more. Related and unrelated chat below the line is welcome.